Steve Conrad's squirm-inducing comedy The Promotion uses a Chicagoland store in a national grocery chain as two men's arena in an increasingly vicious rivalry for company advancement. The Promotion not only satirizes the American dream's moral price tag, it suggests that grocery stores, as possible places of employment, offer the worst of both worlds.
Like any service industry clerk, assistant manager Doug Stauber (Seann William Scott) frequently deals with the public and watches his fortunes rise and fall based on the testy remarks of customer comment cards. When the chain plans to open a new store in a nearby neighborhood, Doug applies for the full manager position and finds himself thrust into the white-collar world of corporate toadying, power plays and team-building exercises.
Doug's spineless manager ("Saturday Night Live's" Fred Armisen) tells him he's a "shoo-in" for the job, until a new assistant manager comes down from Canada and also puts in for it. Richard Wellner (John C. Reilly) turns out to be a perfectly nice guy, a Christian family man who happens to be in recovery. Soon enough, Doug puts his scruples aside and maneuvers against him. Initially Doug engages in passive sabotage, refusing to point out potentially embarrassing mistakes that will trip up Richard. Their escalating battle turns The Promotion into a painfully hilarious comedy of humiliation worthy of Ricky Gervais and Larry David.
In his directorial debut after scripting The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness, Conrad emphasizes the pressures both men struggle under, keeping the emotional stakes high even when scenes involve Yoo-hoo or ridiculous team-building exercises. Doug and Richard both measure their worth based on their abilities to support their wives (played by "The Office's" Jenna Fischer and Lili Taylor, respectively). Doug sweats over the nonrefundable earnest money payment for a new house so the couple can get out of its cramped, thin-walled apartment.
The tension may be even harder on Richard, a father who fears he'll backslide to his "lost years" of substance abuse. He listens to platitudinous, unpersuasive motivational tapes, but Reilly's subtly amusing performance never lets us forget that Richard's only playing a role when he tries to appear like a go-getter. In one appearance before the company's board, he puts a series of "steadfast" expressions on his face, which ironically make him appear that much more uncertain.
Scott is probably best known as Stifler, the butt of most of the gross-out gags in the American Pie movies. The aggressive horndog role doesn't make him the obvious choice as an Iago-like schemer, but he brings a darker presence to Doug than a more conventionally likable actor would. Scott's low, shelflike brow gives him a natural glower and a look of menace, particularly when he's stuck with indignities such as wearing the "Courtesy Patrol" vest while working in the store's parking lot. Although he projects a hair-trigger temper, the violent outbursts between the characters turn out to be comically (and realistically) ineffectual.
Conrad's script captures plenty of clever backroom details, such as the way the weekly schedule becomes a theater of combat. The store turns out to be a place of surprisingly fraught ethnic tensions, as when the Latino workers prank a manager based on his superficial understanding of Spanish. Doug deals with African-American "gang activity" in the parking lot, but can't disperse the young men too aggressively in a racially sensitive neighborhood. Diversity proves to be another minefield in 21st century America.
With its deadpan jokes and clever use of songs by Steve Miller and Public Image Limited, The Promotion satisfies while still feeling like a "small" movie, but lacks the allegorical strength of Reese Witherspoon's similarly themed Election. It's still an affecting look at the daily grind that should strike a chord with anyone who draws a paycheck. You could say The Promotion plays like Office Space with a compelling story, or Clerks with a compelling story and cinematic talent. Compared with other recent workplace satires, The Promotion is the employee of the month.